Definition of Sonnet
A sonnet is a poem generally structured in the form of 14 lines, usually iambic pentameter, that expresses a thought or idea and utilizes an established rhyme scheme. As a poetic form, the sonnet was developed by an early thirteenth century Italian poet, Giacomo da Lentini. However, it was the Renaissance Italian poet Petrarch that perfected and made this poetic literary device famous. Sonnets were adapted by Elizabethan English poets, and William Shakespeare in particular.
Below is an example of a well-known sonnet by Petrarch (translated by Thomas Wentworth Higginson) and a familiar sonnet by Shakespeare for comparison. It’s clear from the examples that both poems feature 14 lines addressing the theme of love, yet they have differing rhyme schemes and artistic expressions.
Sonnet VII (Petrarchan sonnet)
Those eyes, ‘neath which my passionate rapture rose,
The arms, hands, feet, the beauty that erewhile
Could my own soul from its own self beguile,
And in a separate world of dreams enclose,
The hair’s bright tresses, full of golden glows,
And the soft lightning of the angelic smile
That changed this earth to some celestial isle,–
Are now but dust, poor dust, that nothing knows.
And yet I live! Myself I grieve and scorn,
Left dark without the light I loved in vain,
Adrift in tempest on a bark forlorn;
Dead is the source of all my amorous strain,
Dry is the channel of my thoughts outworn,
And my said harp can sound but notes of pain.
Sonnet 116 (Shakespearean sonnet)
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
Primary Types of Sonnets
In English literature, there are two basic sonnet patterns:
- Italian or Petrarchan Sonnet: Named for the Italian Renaissance lyrical poet Francesco Petrarch, this sonnet pattern consists of an eight-line Octave with the rhyme scheme ABBA ABBA, followed by a six-line Sestet that follows one of two rhyme schemes, CDE CDE or CDC CDC.
- English or Shakespearean Sonnet: Named for William Shakespeare and a variation of Italian sonnet, this sonnet pattern consists of three four-line Quatrains and a concluding couplet with the rhyme scheme ABAB CDCD EFEF GG.
There are variants in terms of sonnets, but the Italian and English patterns are the two most prevalent. Two other primary types or sonnets are:
- Spenserian: Named for the English poet Edmund Spenser, a contemporary of William Shakespeare, this sonnet pattern is a variation of Shakespearean sonnet and features a more challenging rhyme scheme, ABAB BCBC CDCD EE.
- Miltonic: Named for the English poet John Milton, this sonnet pattern is considered an evolution of the Shakespearean sonnet. Milton used the Petrarchan form as well, and expanded the traditional limits of rhyme and length in composing many of his sonnets. In addition, Miltonic sonnets often address themes of internal struggles and conflict rather than external world themes.
Common Examples of Sonnet Themes
Like all poetry, sonnets can be about many subjects. However, there are certain traditional subject matters that are associated with this poetic form. Some common examples of sonnet themes are:
- love (in all forms)
- “ideal” woman
- the unattainable
Examples of Famous First Lines in Shakespeare’s Sonnets
William Shakespeare is credited with writing 154 sonnets, collected and published a few years after his death. Shakespeare featured many themes and subjects in his sonnets, and his works in this poetic form are arguably the most famous in English literature. Most of Shakespeare’s sonnets are known by their first line rather than their number. Here are some examples of famous first lines in Shakespeare’s sonnets:
- Mine eye and heart are at a mortal war
- Those lines that I before have writ do lie
- To me, fair friend, you never can be old
- My love is as a fever longing still
- Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
- So are you to my thoughts as food to life
- My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun
- No longer mourn for me when I am dead
- Love is too young to know what conscience is
- Then let not winter’s ragged hand deface
Examples of Sonnets in Literature
Sonnets have continued their long tradition in literature. For the most part, poets have kept within the sonnet parameters of structure and rhyme, leading to artistic language that is deliberate, thoughtful, and beautiful. In addition, literary sonnets are a form for poets to express thoughts and emotions, whether addressing themes of love, nature, God, death, or suffering. Though sonnets generally have defined form, meter, and rhyme, this poetic form has evolved to embrace some exceptions in terms of traditional patterns.
Here are some examples of sonnets in literature:
Example 1: Death, Be Not Proud (John Donne)
death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadfull, for, thou art not soe,
For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.
From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee doe goe,
Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,
And poppie, or charmes can make us sleepe as well,
And better then thy stroake; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
This sonnet is perhaps the most famous of Donne’s “holy sonnets.” In the sonnet, the poet addresses “Death,” personifying him as a braggart. Donne brings death as a metaphysical entity into the physical world as a means of lessening its power over humankind. In addition, the sonnet hints at an afterlife in the final couplet, as the promise of humans waking “eternally,” and ultimately overcoming death so that he “shalt die” instead. Donne’s choice of theme is an elegiac reversal; rather than eulogizing the death of a person, the sonnet praises the death of “Death” himself.
Example 2: I, Being Born a Woman and Distressed (Edna St. Vincent Millay)
I, being born a woman and distressed
By all the needs and notions of my kind,
Am urged by your propinquity to find
Your person fair, and feel a certain zest
To bear your body’s weight upon my breast:
So subtly is the fume of life designed,
To clarify the pulse and cloud the mind,
And leave me once again undone, possessed.
Think not for this, however, the poor treason
Of my stout blood against my staggering brain,
I shall remember you with love, or season
My scorn with pity, —let me make it plain:
I find this frenzy insufficient reason
For conversation when we meet again.
In her modern sonnet, St. Vincent Millay creates a departure from the Petrarchan convention of ideal, courtly love. This form of love was based on the intellectual and emotional connection between a man and woman rather than base physical attraction. In fact, the woman poet in St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet outright rejects the idea of anything but a physical and sexual connection, further claiming this as “the needs and notions of my kind.” This indicates a reversal of gender roles such that the poet is representing women as being overcome with lust, passion, and desire. These are characteristics that would traditionally be attributed to men, and male poets in particular.
As a result, this sonnet is subversive for the reader in its theme and message. However, the beauty of the language, form, and rhyme scheme are true to the literary tradition and artistic nature of sonnet.
Example 3: Remember (Christina Rossetti)
Remember me when I am gone away,
Gone far away into the silent land;
When you can no more hold me by the hand,
Nor I half turn to go yet turning stay.
Remember me when no more day by day
You tell me of our future that you plann’d:
Only remember me; you understand
It will be late to counsel then or pray.
Yet if you should forget me for a while
And afterwards remember, do not grieve:
For if the darkness and corruption leave
A vestige of the thoughts that once I had,
Better by far you should forget and smile
Than that you should remember and be sad.
Rossetti’s sonnet is impactful in terms of its approach to its subject matter and theme. As in many sonnets, the poet is lamenting and mourning a lost love. However, the love has been lost due to the poet’s death rather than that of the lover. Therefore, the sonnet’s words and expressions are from beyond the grave which is symbolic of the poem’s theme of remembrance.
Yet Rossetti again reverses the reader’s expectations in this sonnet by breaking with traditional theme and allowing the poet to encourage her lover to happily forget her. Many traditional sonnets, particularly those of Petrarch, featured the themes of lost or unrequited love for which the poet would lament and suffer. In Rossetti’s sonnet, the poet appears to wish the opposite of suffering and lamentation for the love she has left behind and, in turn, herself.